Here's Kathy's story:
Although I love to travel, going to New York City was just not on my list of destinations. That changed two years ago when my husband and I took a Hudson River Cruise.
I saw the tall buildings from the river. I saw traffic. I saw people. I experienced a very small segment of NYC, but I was hooked. New York City was now a destination on my list.
Last June, LifeWay announced the VBS 2011 theme: “Big Apple Adventure” and I knew I had to go. I wanted to experience New York City.
Three weeks after the theme was announced, my daughter and I were on a bus to NYC. I know for certain this was a trip planned by God – who gets on a tour bus at the last minute without it being God’s will?
On that trip, I saw the sights of New York – Battery Park, Grand Central Station, Times Square, theaters as well as schools, playgrounds and areas called Districts – spotlighted in the rotation areas of “Big Apple Adventure”. I rode the subway, walked the streets, went to a play, ate a hot dog purchased from a street vendor and much more.
Seeing multitudes of people everywhere always in a hurry, I wondered - where was the Christian witness in the city? I saw churches and cathedrals, but where was the ministry? I saw homeless people sleeping in the parks, doorways, and streets – I knew somewhere in the city there had to be Christians who cared.
I thought of the sub-title for the VBS theme – “Where Faith and Life Connect” – how were we as Baptists showing God’s love in New York City and sharing how their faith can indeed connect with their daily lives.
In mid-April, I was privileged to experience that connection for myself and what an experience that was! With the encouragement and direction of Bill Choate and accompanied by Kim Margrave, I went back to New York City.
Metropolitan New York Baptist Association is the association made up of about 240 churches speaking over 20 languages ministering to the millions of people from over 100 countries who live in the five boroughs of NYC plus Long Island, Upper New Jersey and lower Hudson Valley. George Russ is the Director of Missions. He and his staff welcomed us to Manhattan. Our accommodations were in their renovated space for housing of mission teams traveling to NYC located above their office space.
NYC is home to over 800 people groups. The world has come to America. I had heard that a passport was not needed for travel in NYC – instead all one needs is a MetroCard. I now understand. I am just thankful I did not have to navigate the bus and subway system alone!
Visiting with Graffiti Ministries at East 7th Baptist Church, I learned that the ministry started there in the 70’s when the neighborhood looked totally different than it does today. Abandoned buildings, drug dealers, gangs were the norm; however, today it is a different story. The neighborhood is much better, and the ministry there is thriving thanks to nearly 40 work teams a year who have helped Taylor Field, who directs Graffiti Ministries and his staff minister to over 10,000 people a year while converting an abandoned synagogue for their use. Today, it serves as a meeting space for the church as well as Bible studies, after school programs, computer classes, GED classes, clothing closet and soup kitchen. By taking advantage of beautiful Tompkins Square Park just down the street, Graffiti Ministries serves “Free Lunch in the Park” one day a week and conducts sports camps in the summer. They truly see miracles happen every day as they share God’s love by showing God’s love.
Too soon, it was time to get back on the subway to travel north to the South Bronx section called Mott Haven. Here Andrew Mann directs Graffiti2 Ministries. He and his therapy dog, Proof, are featured in Day Three of “Big Apple Adventure” Children’s Mission rotation. I had met Andrew and Proof before at Ridgecrest and Nashville and now I was excited to experience their work firsthand.
Andrew told us a little bit about his ministry there in South Bronx. He, too, sees miracles happen every day as he works with kids through after school programs, Bible studies and sports camps. I loved seeing his Bible skills bulletin board where they not only teach boys and girls God’s Word, but how to use it to find stories and verses for themselves.
He showed us the renovated basement storage area – renovations done by the labor of mission teams. There were among other things boxes of 8000 Easter eggs to be used for their 6th annual Easter egg hunt in nearby St. Mary’s Park.
A definite highlight was being able to actually walk with Andrew around the neighborhood – to see the parks where they will do sports camps (football, cheerleading, tennis, baseball and new this year, soccer), to see where a young girl who attended the ministry programs was killed by a stray bullet, to walk by the schools, stores, apartment buildings – to see some of the 90,000 people who live in the Mott Haven area, several of whom spoke to Andrew as we walked by.
Since it was time for the after school program to begin, we walked back down the street toward the elementary school to pick up some kids and bring them back to the ministry center. The after school program starts each afternoon with free time for games, personal interaction and snacks before the studying and tutoring session began. Proof was keeping an eye on all the activities. Andrew related incidents where Proof was able to “minister” by snuggling next to a distraught child, licking the hand of a person who just needed a friend or “listening” to the troubles of a child who didn’t want to talk to an adult. Proof also listens as kids read to him!
Time passed quickly, and we had to make our way back to the subway to return to Manhattan. The cold, windy, rainy day did not dampen my excitement of being able to see the ministries done by Graffiti and Graffiti2. It was so exciting to see how they were making a difference in the lives of the people they worked with each day.
Another highlight of the trip was working at an ESL class among the West African people group in Harlem. I certainly was nervous as we walked the streets, simply because this was new to me. I wasn’t used to seeing mosques as we walked along either. Later I learned that there were 53 mosques in Harlem. It was exciting though to be a part of an ESL class among the West African people group there. I actually attempted to converse with people from Benin, Ivory Coast and Mali. All spoke some English, but I was helping them recognize sounds, words etc., through use of pictures. I had to watch how I talked because normal conversation sometimes included extra words in sentences that tended to confuse them. When I used the letter “a” as a word, they thought I was trying to get them to say a letter of the alphabet.
In traveling from Point A to Point B, I was able to catch a glimpse of tourist sites along the way. I was bothered most by the differences in life style as I went from walking through the luxurious Trump Tower and Plaza Hotel to seeing the subway rats in Harlem.
As VBS Specialist for Tennessee Baptist Convention, I constantly tell leaders that VBS is not about where the theme is – like New York – but it is about the Bible study as we share the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the men, women, boys and girls that attend our churches during VBS. This year, VBS is not about New York City. As with any theme, it is about people – people who need the Lord, people who need to hear a word of encouragement, people who need food to eat, people who need to know that someone cares. People in New York, people in Tennessee, people in our own communities all need to know how to connect faith with life.
Experiencing a little bit of the ministry efforts in New York City was truly an eye-opening time for me. I am so glad that I was able to visit these ministries, talk with George Russ, Taylor Field and Andrew Mann. I am glad I was able to walk the streets to see the people from a ministry stand-point rather than from a tourist perspective. Even though I got to ride in a New York yellow taxi cab as we made the return trip to the airport, I really did not want to leave. I trust God will provide the opportunity for me to experience the ministry of New York City again.